United Kingdom Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Sesto Quatrini (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 22.9.2023. (CC)
Director and Costume Designer – Laurent Pelly
Set designer – Chantal Thomas
Lighting designer -Joël Adam
Revival director – Paul Higgins
Associate Costume designer – Donate Matchand
Chorus director – William Spaulding
Adina – Nadine Sierra
Nemorino – Liparit Avetisyan
Belcore – Boris Pinkhasovich
Doctor Dulcamara – Sir Bryn Terfel
Giannetta – Sarah Dufresne
It was the name of Laurent Pelly that so attracted me to this L’elisir d’amore: his production of the same composer’s La fille du régiment is a corker of a production (review click here) and while there are similar tropes in this L’elisir (use of colour, perhaps, and reuse of aspects the same basic set, here, piles of hay), the effect seems muted in comparison. It is nice to have comic touches – a dog sprinting from one side of the stage to another at various points, for example, but the overall effect is that Pelly has not quite ‘got’ L’elisir in the same way as his did La fille. There are a lot of visually impressive moments, but they fail to add up.
The setting could be the 1950s via a Fellini film. The execution in terms of production is beyond criticism, though, with lighting (by Joël Adam) a particular delight. There is a tractor, a trattoria, and a lorry (stocked with Dulcamara’s elixir). And yet, somehow I did not feel I was inhabiting this constructed world enough – too much effect, not enough resonance with Donizetti’s intent.
There were a couple of notable house debuts on this occasion. First. the conductor, Sesto Quatrini, was Artistic Director at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet from 2016-23; he was also assistant to Fabio Luisi at the Met in New York and at the Festival della Valle d’Itria (at the latter, he made his Italian opera debut with Verdi’s Un giorno di regno). His one recording appears to be of Nicola Vaccaj’s Giulietta et Romeo, a world premiere on video but also available in sound formats, from La Scala. In that recording, Quatrini marshals his forces with sensitivity and a fine sense of lightness and pacing. The same qualities shone through his Donizetti, the orchestra beautifully transparent. There seemed to be a full understanding of Donizetti’s orchestrational practices (by no means a given in this opera – it can too easily sound bass-light and insubstantial). The Royal Opera House orchestra reacted to Quatrini with some of their finest playing.
The other debutante was someone bringing with her an altogether more solid international reptation, the soprano Nadine Sierra. Covent Garden has therefore been a notable omission to her portfolio of international opera houses; and what a way to right the situation. Sierra was perfect for the part – her voice shining up top and yet she has the necessary lower register. She exudes an infectious energy onstage and is absolutely believably the popular yet innocent beauty of the village. Her voice has all the agility Donizetti asks for, too, yet it was in the more lyrical passages she impressed the most.
With Sierra giving such a pitch-perfect (in multiple ways) account of her role, it was perhaps a shame not all the cast fully measured up. As Nemorino, the farm worker wannabe lover, Liparit Avetisyan felt, at least until the interval, somewhat out of place. I see Avetisyan was the Nemorino in 2017 (see review here) where it was posited that there was a star in the making. Only later in the opera were there flashes of this (a nicely done ‘Una furtiva lagrima’, for example), but for much of the first half the effect was rather unremarkable. Boris Pinkhasovich made more of an impression as the sergeant, Belcore, confident (as indeed he should be) and strong of voice.
Lovely to see Sir Bryn Terfel as Dulcamara. The last time I saw him was at the Lerici Music Festival, Italy, in 2022 in excerpts from his signature role, the titular character in Verdi’s Falstaff. It was a magical occasion in all respects. He felt a touch out of sorts as the first night Dulcamara here at Covent Garden, however, his voice less distinctive, the whole just slightly unsettled. All of the comedic walks and actions were there, but a layer of Byrn-ness was missing throughout.
It is good to end on a high, though, and Sarah Dufresne provides that in her assumption of the small role of Giannetta. She is a Jette Parker Artist currently and, although she has appeared in other smaller (and some larger) roles. Whether as Tusnelda in Handel’s Arminio with the Early Opera Company, as the Shepherd Boy in Tannhäuser, as Papagena in Die Zauberflöte, or as a radiant Voice from Heaven in Don Carlo, she never fails to impress (as my colleague Mark Berry also noted in regard to Dufresne’s Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro in July this year, review here). Papagena (review here) was a great step forwards, and it feels she is ready for much more. Her Giannetta was an absolute delight, vocally perfect, her clarion voice projecting perfectly to the back of the auditorium (heard from the Stalls Circle). The chorus was everything one could wish for.
For all of Pelly’s cleverness, it was a production with a budget that tended towards zero, reduced orchestra and in English translation, but with a plethora of young singers bursting with talent and headed by Galina Averina’s Adina, that shines brighter. This was touring production from Wild Arts (heard by myself at the Thaxted Festival this year), and it seemed to capture the spirit and invention of Donizetti’s masterpiece far more accurately than Pelly’s attempt.
A mixed evening in Covent Garden, therefore. Both Sierra and Quatrini will be welcome returnees in the future, of course, but I was not quite filled with glee by the end.